LOS ANGELES — Two years ago, Wayne Simmonds was toiling away in the Ontario Hockey League for the Owen Sound Attack and the Sault Ste. Marie (Soo) Greyhounds. But his play had already caught the eye of the Los Angeles Kings, who had selected him in the second round (61st overall) of the 2007 National Hockey League Entry Draft.
In that 2007-08 season with Owen Sound, Simmonds scored seventeen goals and contributed 22 assists for 39 points with 43 penalty minutes in 29 games before being traded to Sault Ste. Marie, where he scored sixteen goals and added twenty assists for 36 points with sixty penalty minutes in 31 games.
In fourteen playoff games with the Greyhounds, Simmonds scored five goals and added nine assists for fourteen points with 22 penalty minutes.
Simmonds went on to play in the 2008 OHL All-Star Classic and he represented Canada in the IIHF World Junior Championships that season, helping lead his team to the gold medal.
And after that? All Simmonds did was make the Kings roster right out of junior hockey last season, playing in all 82 games, scoring nine goals and adding fourteen assists for 23 points with 73 penalty minutes.
But if you think that was impressive, you haven’t been paying attention to what he has done so far this season.
To be sure, Simmonds has been one of the Kings’ best players since the start of the season, although his performance as a gritty, hard-working forward who can chip in here and there with a goal or two was vastly overshadowed by the dominating performance of the line of Anze Kopitar, Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams earlier in the season.
Now, with Smyth out of the lineup due to an undisclosed upper body injury, Kopitar has fallen off the face of the Earth in terms of goal scoring. Add to that the scoring woes of right wing Dustin Brown and Alexander Frolov, one would think the Kings’ offense would completely dry up, sending the team into a lengthy downward spiral.
But not if Simmonds has anything to say about it.
Indeed, in the Kings’ eight games without Smyth, Simmonds has been the biggest reason they have not only kept their heads above water, but are above the .500 mark with a 4-3-1 record.
During that stretch, the 6-2, 183-pound right wing from Scarborough, Ontario has scored four goals and has contributed four assists for eight points. He had a three-game goal scoring streak during those eight games and is in the midst of six-game point streak with three goals and four assists for seven points.
Simmonds has stepped up offensively, but his stellar play in recent games is not showing up only on the scoresheet. Indeed, he has been a force along the boards and in the corners where he has consistently won physical battles for loose pucks and has been solid in his own zone.
In short, Simmonds has been the Kings’ best player over the last eight games.
“He’s been playing really well for us,” said Brown, the team captain. “He’s been getting a lot of points. A lot of that is the result of him working really hard. He’s been really good in the corners and making plays.”
“He looks like he did at the end of the season last year, the last ten games,” said head coach Terry Murray. “He’s jumping, he’s got a lot of power in his game, he’s playing a hard, heavy game.”
Near the midpoint of the third period, Simmonds fought hard to win a loose puck battle along the left wing boards. It was the key play that set up a goal by center Jarret Stoll.
“What a play he made on that goal that Stoll scored,” Murray beamed. “To get in there and beat the defenseman, to come up with the puck, that’s a courageous play. You’ve got a big defenseman bearing down on you and he walks out of the corner and finds the man in the open slot.”
That is exactly the type of play Simmonds has been coming up with a lot in recent games.
“He’s played tremendous in the last while,” said Murray. “Maturity, hunger. He feels a big part of this hockey club, and he is. The young guys should start to takeover ownership of this hockey team and that’s the ideal where you want for me to think that they can get to, that every night they’re a huge part of the effort.”
Simmonds is beginning to display leadership potential through his play and his work ethic.
“He’s showing us that he’s maturing and that he wants more,” said Murray. “I love what he’s doing. I love his attitude. He’s a good kid, he comes to work every day. I’m real happy for him.”
The maturity and skill now seen from Simmonds was only apparent in brief glimpses during his rookie season.
“You’re a first-year guy—what I did for the first 3/4ths of the season was chip-and-chase, chip-and-chase and just get on my horse and get [the puck],” Simmonds explained. “But now, I’ve learned the league a little more and it’s coming a bit easier for me.”
Indeed. Now in his second season in the NHL, Simmonds’ confidence level seems to be skyrocketing.
“Confidence is a huge factor,” he explained. “I’m not afraid to make plays. I get the puck now and I’m taking second looks everywhere. I’m just more aware of my surroundings.”
“Everything slows down a bit more [now],” he emphasized. “When you chip-and-chase, it’s going faster. You just swing it by, hit and then fly out. But when you have puck possession, it slows down. You get a chance to see what’s going on around you and make plays.”
“If I don’t have a play, I’m not afraid to dump-and-chase and go get it. But if I have a play, I’m going to make it. You just have to be safe with the puck.”
His teammates have certainly noticed the difference in Simmonds’ play.
“I think the one difference with Simmer is his confidence level,” said Brown. “When you have that confidence, it gives you the ability to go out and play like he is.”
“I think it’s a mix of experience—last year was his first year,” added Brown. “He’s a pretty young guy. I think he learned a lot. Secondly, he got bigger and stronger in the off-season and third is that confidence. That’s a huge part of the game at this level.”
That added strength and improved conditioning, the result of hard work during the off-season, has been a big plus for Simmonds’ confidence.
“I’m always ready to go [now],” Simmonds noted. “You go back to the bench, take a couple of seconds, or whatever. From where I was last year, I feel more energized and that I have more to give.”
“I love the crash and bang,” Simmonds added. “I put a little bit of muscle on and I think it’s helping out. I feel stronger, better and more comfortable on my feet. I’m getting hit and sometimes I’m just standing there and not even moving. It’s worked wonders.”
Simmonds also spent time over the summer working on his shot.
“This summer, I just worked a lot on my hand skills and shooting pucks,” he said. I did a lot of shooting clinics this summer and it’s proven to do well for me.”
His improved shot and hands were apparent on December 3 in a 6-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators. In that game, Simmonds was hauled down from behind on a breakaway and was awarded a penalty shot.
On that shot, Simmonds displayed the quick hands and shot that were not evident last season.
“I’ve been doing that move in practice for the last few shootouts we had,” Simmonds explained. “[Senators goalie Brian Elliott] had his legs spread far apart and I saw that throughout the game. I thought, ‘I’m doin’ it.’ I knew what I was going to do. I gave him a quick fake and then a quick slapper five-hole.”
Although Simmonds is riding high and has been the Kings’ best player of late, the fact is that he is still just 21 years old and is just a second-year player.
In other words, he is not yet a proven commodity.
“You don’t know what to expect from young players sometimes,” said Murray. “The way he played at the end of the season last year, you’re hoping he comes back and plays that way because he was one of our better players in the last ten games. That’s where you’d like to see him take off and it looks like he has.”
“He took off well again this year,” added Murray. “He took a step back for a little while, but he’s right back on top of his game.”
Unproven or not, the Kings need Simmonds to play that hard, heavy game Murray always talks about and to produce offensively when he gets the chance.
“Simmonds is a big part of it,” Murray stressed. “We rely on him, we look for him to make good things happen on both sides of the puck. It’s good for him. I’m very happy that he’s becoming a pro.”
But after all that, noting his vastly improved play of late and the fact that he has scored nine goals, already matching his total from last season, one question had to be asked during an interview with Simmonds following the December 3 game against Ottawa.
This writer asked, in jest, “Who are you and what did you do with Wayne Simmonds?”
“I am Wayne Simmonds,” he replied with a laugh. “I guess I’m the new and improved one.”
Quite the understatement.
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